The Salt Lake stadium looks like a dream and sitting inside on game days feels like a dream. It’s been two match days and the crowd support has been nothing short of phenomenal, considering these are just group stage games.
FIFA U-17 World Cups usually draw small crowds. The 2013 edition at UAE had an average of 1,000 spectators per game. In Kolkata, FIFA’s attendance figures for four games read 46,150, 55,800, 48,620 and 50,286. The veracity of these figures is debatable, but I can testify to there being at least 20,000 people for each game. Such has been the response.
The stadium had undergone a Rs 120-crore renovation to match FIFA standards for this World Cup and it seems to be worth every penny. Sitting inside the press tribune, I can hear the crowd through the glass walls. Once I step out into the open tribune, I find it hard to get myself to go back in.
After playing England’s first game against Chile, Manchester United youth product, Angel Gomes, was lost for words to describe the atmosphere. “It felt like I was playing in an actual (senior) World Cup final!” he told me immediately after the game.
The outside is brightly lit at night, and on my first two days here I noticed passersby gawking at the spectacle. Outside the main gate is a bizarre sculpture of the lower half of a football player with a globe mounted on it. I’m told it was conceived by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Twitter did not spare her, though, trolling the idea.
And so, we’ve reached the first heartbreak phase of this U-17 World Cup. As we move into the final fixtures of the group stage, the youngsters grapple with emotions in their quest to seal at least a third place in the group. (Four best third-placed teams from the six groups get to progress)
For most of these players, it is their first international tournament. They’ve spent at least a year eagerly waiting to take on the best in their age group from around the world.A dejected Chile player after the loss to Iraq at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata | Salil Bera
Especially if you are in a tough group like Group F, here in Kolkata, each of the four teams have come with such high expectations. As I walk into the mixed zone to interact with players after a loss, they seem heart-broken, on the verge of tears, despite all the toughening they’ve been subject to.
They are teenagers, after all. I walk up to one distraught Chile player, who surprisingly lost their first two games heavily, and give him a fist bump. “Come back stronger,” I tell the translator to tell him.
As a couple of coaches pointed out, such disappointments go a long way in teaching these boys valuable lessons. There’s sure to be a lot more upsets and disappointment as the tournament progresses, but such is the cruelty of cup competitions. The sooner they learn it, the better.